While DJI has sensors in its drones to help them avoid collisions, Flyability’s Elios drone was designed to crash and keep on going.
And its design reflects this fact:
But why would you ever need a drone that can crash and keep going, you might ask?
Because certain tight spaces—like boiler rooms, or the site of a nuclear reactor after a grave catastrophe—may be packed full of rubble and rife with unpredictable conditions, making collisions unavoidable, and also making the need for a remote view crucial to keeping people from harm.
Switzerland-based Flyability’s drones have showed so much promise as a way to keep people from harm that they won the UAE Drones for Good prize in 2015, which, along with the prestige, comes with $1 million dollars in cash.
Read on to learn about their journey, and how they became the first company to create a drone that can crash without being forced to the ground.
The Flyability Origin Story
The tsunami that hit the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 is what first led to Flyability’s co-founders imagining a drone that could explore dangerous, unknown spaces instead of humans (or faulty robots that weren’t up to the job).
Flyability co-founders Adrien Briod and Patrick Thévoz were students at the time of the tsunami, studying robotics.
As they watched the coverage of the nuclear disaster, they saw land-based robots attempt to roll into the site to gather information, but they continued to get stuck and crash.
They thought that there had to be a better way to use robots in disaster scenarios, where information was desperately needed about the condition of hard-to-reach, dangerous places.
Adrien began his PhD thesis around the idea that there must be a way to create a robot to address these scenarios. The result, several years later, was the Elios, the drone that can crash and keep on flying.
How Flies Informed the Creation of Elios
After deciding to create a drone that could do the dirty work of inspecting tight, dangerous places, it took several years of experimenting and tinkering to find a design that actually worked.
Initially Flyability designers considered creating a drone that could avoid collisions altogether, which would use sensor technology similar to what we see on current mainstream consumer drones.
However, after testing and research, it became clear that collisions would be impossible to avoid in the kinds of scenarios for which these drones were being made.
So if collisions were unavoidable, how could a drone be created that would be collision tolerant? It would mean finding some way for a drone to crash without the props being hit or affected—a tall order, which would require some creative thinking.
Flyability’s research took them down an unlikely but promising path. It turns out that insects are really good at tolerating collisions (they’re also good at avoiding them, but in case they do happen, they’re built to survive).
A fly, for instance, can hit a glass window and still find its way back to a stable position in the air without crashing to the ground.
To mimic a fly’s collision-tolerant design, the Flyability team first experimented with adding a fixed cage to the drone to protect it. This didn’t work— when the drone hits a wall with a fixed cage attached, the drone tilts forward, flipping over from the force of the collision. This points the propellers straight down, shooting the drone crashing into the ground.
To be crash tolerant the drone needed to have a way to absorb force within the cage, which wouldn’t impact the drone itself. Somehow the cage had to be detached from the drone.
The solution ended up being a completely decoupled cage, which you see in the Elios. The cage can rotate on three axes, with each part of the cage completely independent from the interior, flying part of the drone.
That is pretty darn cool.
Applications and Use Cases
The Elios was created exclusively for inspections, but its use cases are many.
One of the most common uses for the Elios is boiler inspections, which are dangerous, and occur in hard-to-reach places.
As Marc Gandillon of Flyability explained to us recently, the alternative to using a drone for a typical boiler inspection, where the boiler is situated 300 feet or so off the ground, could involve weeks of preparation at a cost of $100,000 or more for building the scaffolding that would allow a person to climb up the boiler.
This approach is dangerous, since the scaffolding could collapse or something could go wrong during the inspection. Using a drone avoids all of these dangers for people, and cuts costs by a huge amount—just another instance of drones doing good in the world.
Back in May the Elios was the first drone ever used to explore the area of a cave for scientific research. Without the Elios, the information gathered would have been impossible to access safely.
What’s even cooler is that the expedition was primarily meant to train astronauts in an environment that replicated extraterrestrial conditions.
Mining inspections present another use case for the Elios , where a huge drill might be stymied by large rocks deep within a massive tunnel.
The Elios can provide information on easier routes for the drill to take, and help identify the best path forward in a systematic manner, as opposed to the random approach taken in the absence of first-hand footage of what’s in front of the drone.
Search & Rescue
The Elios was recently used to explore a crevasse as part of a research mission in partnership with the Zermatt Mountain Rescue team.
The mission was made to test the idea of using the Elios for Search & Rescue missions. Looks like a win to us.
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